‘The Woman Who Lived’, written by Catherine Tregenna, features the Doctor tracking down an alien artefact on his own in 1651 only to run into the now immortal Ashildr. Calling herself Me she is a lady by day, highwayman at night. Both are on the trail of an alien gem forcing them to work together and for the Doctor to face the consequences of gifting a young women with immortality.
Like its predecessor this is another historical romp that completely misfires. While there is an interesting idea about the Doctor dealing with the question of eternal life and the impact he has on people it is ruined by wooden acting and misjudged attempts at comedy.
Spoilers From Here On!
The Doctor is well-known for running away once the day has been saved. Rarely does he check up on the situation he left behind. ‘The Woman Who Lived’ illustrates the negative impact the Doctor can have on someone’s life when he doesn’t think of the consequences.
When the Doctor encounters Ashildr she is very different from the dreamer and story teller of ‘The Girl Who Died’. She is bitter and cold, her memory of the people she once loved long faded away. She keeps a library of her journals, charting her slow march through history. Her life literarily has become a story, removing pages so that she can edit out the bad parts.
There are some nice flashbacks here, as we see various incidents that Ashildr’s life. From secretly fighting in the 100 year war or mourning the loss of her three children to the plague we get some indication of why Ashildr does not allow herself to become emotionally connected to anyone.
The Doctor hopes that he can rekindle the spark he saw in Ashildr so long ago, which blinds him from her true intent and motives. Denied passage with the Doctor she has teamed with Leandro, a stranded lion-like alien, planning to use the alien gem to open a portal to another world. All it needs to fuel it is a death.
Lacking compassion and dismissing the Doctor’s warning that the portal could unleash horrors on the land Ashildr has the Doctor arrested and plans to use the death of fellow highway man Sam Swift. When the execution is staid she takes matter into her own hands, plunging the gem into Sam’s chest.
Of course she has been betrayed and alien spaceships appear, blasting up the local area. Ashildr suddenly realises that she does indeed care for other people and instantly regrets her actions. Luckily the spare immortality chip the Doctor provided her allows her to resurrect Swift, closing the portal.
Reformed Ashildr promises to look after those the Doctor leaves behind and when he once again rejoins Clara in the 21st century he sees she has kept her word, glimpsed in the background of a photo. We end with Clara promising she isn’t going anywhere, while the Doctor knows that their relationship can only ever be temporary.
In other hands this character arc and the comparison between Ashildr’s immortality and the Doctor’s time travel could have made this a great episode. Unfortunately the same poor comedic tone of the last episode and the wooden acting of a central character turn this into a pantomime.
False drama is created by the Doctor’s refusal to take Ashildr with him. He’ll claim that he needs a mortal with him in order to appreciate their temporary existence and so does she. Two immortals travelling together can only leads to bad things.
Which is, of course, ridiculous. The Doctor has travelled with others with extended lifespans before without loosing perspective. There is also no reason that they couldn’t keep a mortal companion with them (unless there is a ‘1 in, 1 out’ policy in the TARDIS we are unaware of). Nor is there any reason the Doctor couldn’t just take her some other place or time and ferry her elsewhere once she has had enough of her current location.
In short there is no reason for the Doctor to behave this way. All it does is make him look more selfish, continuing to ruin Ashildr’s life just because he doesn’t want her with him.
This would be tragic if not for the fact that Maisie Williams fails to bring any charisma to Ashildr. It is impossible to care about her and her villainous turn only makes her more unsympathetic. For a character that is supposed to be the best at everything (including changing her voice) she makes a lot of mistakes.
The Doctor’s forgiveness of her actions is hard to reconcile. Who knows what terrible things she has done over the years and how long before she once again forgets to have compassion? His deference to her and acceptance of her role as patron (which she still manages to make sound like a threat) seems like he is only inviting trouble and learnt nothing from the experience.
Karen Gillan gave a much better performance in ‘The Girl Who Waited’, showing how Amy became more hardened in her long wait for the Doctor. Alex Kingston as River Song also demonstrates how to play someone who is able to match the Doctor in wisdom and mystery while still being likeable.
Rufus Hound as Sam Swift shows a glimmer of likeability but is wasted. His first encounter with the Doctor, challenging Ashildr for muscling in on his patch, is embarrassing with supposedly witty banter that fails to amuse. When we next see him he is performing a stand up routine to delay his trip to the gallows before engaging in a double act with the Doctor.
The jokes here are largely unfunny and even inappropriate. We are also supposed to care about his imminent death but we know so little about him other than he is a criminal. So much rides on the viewer wanting him to survive (and not just to avert alien invasion) but there just isn’t enough character development to make it work.
Even Peter Capaldi can’t save the episode. His mile a minute delivery seems like he is attempting to keep the runtime down or rush through the material. Lines of dialogue are entirely lost or just fail to make an impact. Witness his banter with Leandro to kill him so it won’t be on his conscience when he defeats him. Instead of the gravitas and menace Capaldi usually brings this is a throwaway line with no emotional weight.
In the past Clara has been compared to the Doctor’s caretaker. No more is this more evident in this episode where this Doctor is unable to function in any shape or form. While he can still pilot the TARDIS he blunders into danger, calls attention to himself and struggles to understand people. His previous incarnations would be dismayed and embarrassed by his actions.
The rest of the plot is full of plot holes and poor comedy. The villains plot initially seems to be that they are going to sacrifice someone to activate the portal but in fact they just need to be in the vicinity of a hanging. The danger must therefore be what might happen when the portal opens but the Doctor’s warnings have no supporting evidence. It is just as likely that it would have opened a harmless portal and Ashildr could leave.
Leandro’s 11th hour betrayal also means that much of his backstory must be a lie. We never do find out how he ended up on Earth or why the gem wasn’t in his possession. Was there an alien armada just waiting to cross over and why did they just start blasting at the obviously technologically inferior area below? How and why did Leandro get disintegrated when the portal closed prematurely?
It is a shame with the villains plan is undeveloped. It makes the climax rushed and confused. Lots of explosions and laser blasts signifying nothing. Surely there are better ways to show Ashildr’s empathy being restored?
This is just one of several poorly scripted scenes. Equally risible are the comedy pikemen who barge into Ashildr’s house to deliver exposition. They have a wanted poster printed in the last 24 hours for the Doctor but are dissuaded when he very easily convinces them to rob Ashildr when she is gone. This is another embarrassing scene with no internal logic (surely if they are prone to burglary they won’t need the Doctor to point out Ashildr is rich).
The direction is uninspired and any dramatic or emotional scenes are undercut by the ‘funny’ music playing over it. Strange cuts (there is a moment during the house breaking where the camera jumps back for no apparent reason) and obvious ADR lines make the whole production look amateurish.
After such a promising start to the series this semi-two parter is a sad indication of how the 12th Doctor’s era might be. I hope it can turn away from this shallow, childish form and return to the greatness of the past (or routinely displayed in the audios and books).